On Teaching

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About once a year, someone stirs up the controversy over whether creative writing can ever really be taught. Enough has been written about this so all I’ll say is that while you can’t instil talent, you can definitely hone it and that, to paraphrase Monica from Friends, sometimes you need rules to control the magic.

Instead, in this blog, I’d like to explore something else. With more writing schools than ever before, half the novelists I know have turned their hand to teaching in some capacity. But what does it mean when a professional writer becomes a tutor? Does it change your work for the better or worse?

Teaching crept up on me. In the lull between books three and four, I was asked by a handful schools, universities and literary festivals to lead writing workshops. They were sporadic, one-off talks at first. I used my own experience of writing and being edited, and I got a taste for it.

I’ll admit that during this time I was going stir crazy. I work from home and have two little kids who can pin me to my postcode for weeks at a time. I was starting to feel stale, and one-off writing workshops were a great way to publicise my books and connect with new people at the same time. And while I make a good living from my books, it’s not like my greatest household concern is how to stop the peacocks crapping in the moat, so a little extra cash is always welcome.

Then, this time last year, I agreed to tutor the three-month course Curtis Brown Creative, and the bar was raised. I bought armfuls of how-to-write manuals. Most of them are full of padding, but a handful contained observations that chimed with my own experience, and gradually I began to articulate things I had known all along. I re-read my various editors’ notes on my own novels, even paid close attention to my reviews, and before long I had enough material to teach a long, intensive course.

I have always been an instinctive writer; plotting, writing and editing all blur into one process for me, and it felt forced to distil this into a list of instructions. Luckily, something happened at around the same time that made me get over that. I dipped a toe into the world of television drama, first in having The Poison Tree adapted for ITV, and later in turning Broadchurch into first a novel, then a series of short stories. This made me think about story and structure more formally: TV and film are collaborative, and you have to talk to each other about the work in progress. I got used to their vernacular, and soon it felt professional, rather than pseudy, to talk in terms of arcs, beats and acts.

But with an understanding of ‘the rules’ came the first drawback; inhibition. When I wrote my first three novels I had never read a single page of theory. I'd just... done it. I am now writing my fifth original novel with a level of self-consciousness that is as inhibiting as it will ultimately be useful. From Orwell’s rules of style to my own diktats, the formless truths that apply to all fiction are in black and white now, and they superimpose themselves across the screen as I type. In the end, this will make for a tighter work; but certainly in the early stages, I question my writing in a way that’s new, and not altogether comfortable. I can never hope to recreate the experience of writing The Poison Tree, which was as smooth and spontaneous as laying an egg; but lately I've wondered if I’ve gone too far the other way. Ask me again when I’ve finished this book.

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There is no doubt that teaching a long course slows my work-in-progress down. There are fifteen students on every Curtis Brown Creative course; that’s fifteen novels to hold in my head for months on end, giving each novel the same consideration as I would my own work. The nature of the course means that extracts are often read in completely the wrong order, so it’s no mean feat to remember who’s who, who knows what, where did we leave off, and why has that character suddenly changed his name and his profession, lost a sister and gained a wife? This is made more difficult by the fact that these stories are really good, with characters so vivid they elbow my own imaginary friends to one side for a while.

In the last month of a course, I will process about 20,000 words of prose from up to ten different writers each week, so small wonder that for a while my own book stalls completely. After my last teaching session, there was grief at leaving these books behind just as they had started to take flight, and behind this a bubbling panic at the state of my own poor, neglected novel.

But sometimes a bump in the road gives you time to pause and notice what’s important. 48 hours after the course ended, I sat at my desk and began to write, almost without deciding to, a scene I’ve been struggling with since I first had the idea for this book. The words and ideas came in a way they hadn’t for over a year, and one week later, I had 25,000 new words. I'm even going to keep some of them.

It was an important reminder of something I had forgotten after a series of relentless deadlines; that the gestation period, the subconscious examining of ideas, is as important as time in front of the page. And in spending this gestation period not lolloping in front of Homes Under the Hammer but editing, analysing and discussing other people’s novels, I’d gained insights into my own work without even realising.

I no longer feel stale. Writing novels has been my job for seven years now. I sit at my desk at nine, and stay there until burnout or school pick-up, whichever comes first. It’s shameful how quickly gratitude at being permitted to write for a living turns into just another day in front of the computer. It was time to get hungry again, and ambition is contagious.

We carefully select our students at Curtis Brown Creative, and the bar is high. I’ve been lucky to work with writers who are fun as well as talented – but there is talent to keep me on my toes. Frequently I have come across beautifully crafted sentences and wish I’d got there first. And there are a few genius plot twists that are now forever barred to me because there are fifteen witnesses who will know exactly where I nicked it from.

Today a former CBC student of mine announced a two-book deal. Knowing that a novel I first saw in its rawest form (and loved even then) will be on my bookshelf this time next year makes me happier than I can say. It’s hugely exciting for me to see her make the step from talented but aspiring writer to professional novelist. Almost as exciting as when it happened to me.

At my last teaching session, someone asked a perfect question; nothing to do with plot, or word count, or how many times you can pitch to the same agent without incurring some kind of harassment order, but something just as important. ‘How do you get over the crippling self-doubt?’ I had to tell her that you don’t – you just have to accept it as part of the process. In some ways that’s the most important lesson I could teach them. That to get your book written, you need to climb back on the horse, even when it’s thrown you off three times that day, and you’ve landed on your arse in the mud, and also actually you fucking hate horses and don’t even know why you ever wanted to ride one in the first place.

It wasn’t until I was asked that question that I found I knew the answer, and as with so many things, now that I’ve said it out loud, I can apply it to my own work. The learning curve curls in more than one direction.

Later this year I’ll be running workshops and masterclasses for The Guardian, at Swanwick Writers’ School  and at Stoke Newington and Folkestone literary festivals.

 I will be teaching another 3-month novel-writing course for Curtis Brown Creative in November 2015.

 


The Long Goodbye

I’ve just finished the copy edits on my latest novel, The Ties That Bind, which will be published by Hodder next May. I feel that I ought to be ecstatic. I've worked on this book nearly every day for the best part of a year and I should be glad to see the back of it. But instead, I'm reluctant to let it go.  

For those who don't know, the copy edit is the final, super-close, ultra-pernickety read-through of the manuscript before it is typeset and the last chance I have to make any real changes to the book. On the next round, everything will be beautifully laid out in Plantin Light font, and I’ll only be allowed to dot my i’s and cross my t’s. Or should it be dot my is and cross my ts? There you go: two paragraphs into this blog and there’s already a perfect illustration of why authors need copy editors.

I actually love copy edits. By this stage any major plot flaws or inconsistencies have already been ironed out by the book’s earliest readers; my friend and husband, my agent and her assistant, my editor and her assistant. No one is going to ask me to change the gender or age or nationality of my protagonist, or the identity of my murder victim, or swap around chapters, or rewrite the whole thing in the first person. It’s time to immerse myself in exquisitely pedantic arguments about minor points of grammar and whether there’s still an ‘h’ in the word ‘yoghurt.’ (I think there is. Discuss.) It’s my last chance to do what I love best: to tinker with sentence structure and get the music right. And they are always done the old-fashioned way, in longhand on paper, which is delicious after months staring at a screen.

It takes a certain type of person to read a manuscript with the kind of forensic eye for detail that will pick up on the tiny accidental inconsistencies that the Amazon and Good Reads reviewers take such glee in pointing out. Apart from acting as the Typo Police, their job also involves checking that the numbers stack up, and that dates are consistent throughout. My books are character-driven, meaning that I don’t plot too tightly before beginning as storylines are subject to huge changes between drafts. It’s an admitted weakness of mine that in trying to nail the interesting things like psychology and relationships, I sometimes overlook the boring-but-important stuff like ages and days of the week.

The copy editor who worked on The Burning Air has since retired – rumours that untangling my mess of dates and times led her to throw in the towel and move on to something less stressful like crocodile wrestling are unconfirmed – but the new one has done an equally brilliant job of going zero tolerance on my numerical incompetence. I knew at the time of writing that The Ties That Bind would be about an unsolved murder from the 1960s, but the actual year the murder occurred leapt (or leaped, as my copy ed would have it) about all over that decade, subject to external forces such as the legalisation of gambling and the year that the Kray twins were put on trial. As a result, my timeline was all over the place.

Anyway, the edits are now done and dusted. Literally. My desk is covered in eraser dust, little rubber slivers that will turn up all over the house for weeks to come. The manuscript – all 357 one-sided, double-spaced, pencil-marked pages of it – is sealed in an envelope and ready to go. As is now traditional, I make my husband hand-deliver it to my publisher because a) the tube fare and my boundless trust in my beloved means it’s cheaper and more reliable than recorded delivery and b) if I take it to the post office myself, I’ll think of something I want to change on the walk and end up bringing it back home to rewrite it.

Even my courier boy system isn’t foolproof – last year, when it was time to let go of The Burning Air for the last time, I actually chased him down the road with my special lucky copy-editing propelling pencil (I know, I know) and we undid the Jiffy bag in the middle of the street while I added a semi-colon to a paragraph halfway through chapter 22.

Left to my own devices I would probably never stop editing. I’d still quite like to give The Poison Tree one last tweak, and it was published over four years ago. But you have to stop somewhere if you want to be read. (And to get paid.)

My eldest daughter started primary school last week. When I watched her disappear through the gate in her oversized gingham dress, I fought the urge to run after her, scoop her up and keep her at home with me forever. I recognised the wrench from sending my books off for the last time. It’s hard to let your children go it alone in the big wide world. But isn’t that the point of having them?


From Page To Screen

Adapting The Poison Tree

When The Poison Tree was commissioned by STV, one very famous author cornered me at a party and feverishly told me not to let anyone near it – that the television company would destroy my precious novel forever. This attitude bewildered me. If I wanted complete control over my work, I would never publish it in the first place. Every new reader breathes new life into a book and adaptation seems to me like a natural stage of that process.

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For all that, I was a little nervous. This is my book: for a year, every little comma was under my control. Now I was about to hand it over to an entire team of people.

The novel is about Karen Clarke, a young mother whose partner, Rex, has just been released from prison after a long stretch. In the novel, we learn why and how over a series of extended flashbacks to the summer of 1997, when Karen, Rex and his younger sister Biba lived in an intense, isolated triangle in the siblings’ crumbling Highgate home. The couple try to build a new life with their daughter Alice (and without Biba), but it’s clear that someone knows their secret.

It was adapted for television by Emilia di Giralomo, who’s best known for her work as lead writer and executive producer on Law and Order: UK. Like me, she writes twisting, surprising narratives, but LO:UK is much pacier than my fiction, with huge issues and stories condensed into one-hour timeslots, and I wondered how she would translate my slow-burning book for the screen. From the first few pages of Emilia’s script, I understood not to me to judge the book in terms of my novel but as a piece of work in its own right. And in those terms, I think it’s hugely successful. While the screenplay is true to the spirit of my novel, it was fascinating to note the places where entire chapters can be summed up in a single clever line of dialogue, and where new storylines have been added to make the book work for a television audience.

The focus has been reversed so that instead of unfolding in flashback, the present-day action, where Rex has been released from prison and Karen knows that her family are under threat, is now the driving force. Entire characters and sub-plots have been culled, and there are a couple of major storyline changes. Perhaps this is what my author friend meant by ruining the book but actually, I quite like it. I hope it means that readers of the novel can enjoy the drama with a genuine sense of suspense, and that anyone who reads the book after watching the television programme is still in for a few surprises.

Perhaps I’d have liked to linger a little longer in the summer of 1999, to delve a little deeper into the beginning of Karen’s friendship with Biba and to see more of the slow seduction between her and Rex. But I know that that would have compromised the thriller that STV wanted to make, and it’s far more important that the piece works its own right than that my authorial proclivities are served.

The only other criticisms I have are tiny; a deliberate hairline fracture in my plot is a crack on-screen that I wonder if viewers will even register. And the Highgate mansion is not as derelict as I envisaged it. Property porn seems to be the sine qua non of recent ITV dramas and The Poison Tree is no exception.

In many places, I think my novel has actually been improved upon. As the present-day plot has been expanded, Karen’s home has relocated from my original (and anonymous) Suffolk setting to a lone clapboard cottage in the shade of the nuclear reactor on Dungeness beach in Kent. It’s a bleakly beautiful place, enough to instil agoraphobia in the most intrepid explorer. It makes for stunning photography, and I love the contrast between the net that is slowly closing in around Karen and the wide open space she lives in.

While some of my supporting characters didn’t make the cut, others have developed in ways that have completely delighted me. Alice, Rex and Karen’s daughter, has had a couple of years added to her age and Emilia has written her exactly as I would have developed her; a sparky but vulnerable pre-teen, played to perfection by the brilliant Hebe Johnson, who I’m sure will have her name engraved on a Bafta before the decade is out.

I think I’ve been exceptionally lucky with all the cast. I was delighted when I heard that Ophelia Lovibond had been cast as Biba; she is my character to the life, capturing not only her infectious, unhinged charm but also the darkness that underpins it. I’m particularly pleased with her performance in the scenes that take place after the pivotal event at the end of Episode One, when the party is over forever.

The other two leads – MyAnna Buring as Karen, and Matthew Goode as Rex – were more surprising. In my version of the story, Karen and Rex are both good-looking, but in an acquired-taste sort of way. I’m afraid I thought the actors might be a bit too gorgeous to convince as the awkward, haunted couple. Again, my doubts were unfounded; from the first moment I saw them in character, at a read-through in a draughty church hall in Islington, I felt that I was eavesdropping on a private conversation. My confidence in them only grew after watching them on location in Highgate. (In fact, the only jarring thing about the set visit was the realisation that I’d always seen the novel, which is written in the first person, entirely through Karen’s eyes, gonzo-style – almost like the way Peep Show is filmed.)

Matthew might not be as undernourished and geeky as Rex was in my imagination, but his steely determination to protect his sister shines through the gaps between his lines. (He does a very good brooding silence). MyAnna is barely off-screen throughout and is completely compelling in every scene, nailing every stage of . I Karen’s development from ingénue to hedonist to conspirator to mother to... well, you’ll have to watch to find out just what she becomes. She more than does my Karen justice; she makes her her own. Recently at a literary festival I read aloud a passage from The Poison Tree and was surprised and thrilled to find myself picturing MyAnna and Matthew in a scene between Karen and Rex. I can’t think of a higher compliment to pay them.

My book is still on the shelf, just as I wrote it, not a comma out of place. I don’t expect the drama to replace it, and it never could. But I think they make wonderful companions.

 

THE POISON TREE IS ON ITV1 AT 9PM ON 10TH AND 17TH DECEMBER


Trailer Vs. Trailer

Just over a week now until the adaptation of my novel The Poison Tree premieres on ITV1 and to say I'm excited is an understatement. I'll write at length about the experience of seeing my work brought to the screen closer to the broadcast. In the meantime, these two very different clips give you an idea of the differences - and similiarities - between the book and its dramatisation.

Here's the teaser for the drama, starring Myanna Buring as Karen, Matthew Goode as Rex and Ophelia Lovibond as Biba.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E_vfI9y62K8]

 

 

And here's the beautiful short film that HYPtv made to promote my novel when it was published by Hodder in 2010. I don't know who the girl playing Biba is here, but she has a lovely way with a vintage parasol.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iK615sS6z9c]

 

The Poison Tree is a) still available in all good bookshops and b) on ITV1 at 9pm on December 10th, 2012.


FAQs

Every now and then, they unchain me from my desk and let me loose on the book-loving public. I love to meet readers and am always flattered and amazed by the things they have to ask me.

While some questions are unusual – I doubt I’ll ever again be asked, as I was in West Hampstead, whether I make models of my characters out of wire mesh and clay to help me visualise them – others crop up time and again. So here are the questions I’m most frequently asked, in person and via email, with the answers as they occur to me today.

 

Where do you get your ideas from?

This wins the FAQ Olympics by a mile, for me and every other writer I know. The rather feeble answer is that I’m not quite sure. Ideas for plots, or plot twists, or characters, or locations float around in my mind for months, or even years. Sometimes a character will bump into a story idea or a location and the book is conceived.

What’s your writing routine?

It depends where I’m at. At the planning stage, I like to mooch around coffee shops, notebook and pen, and take road trips. Sense of place is vitally important to me: often the location for my book appears before the characters or the plot, and I like to think that my stories could not have happened anywhere but at that place, at that time. While this is going on, I am a delight to live with, partly because I am rarely at home.

For the middle stage, which involves trying to wriggle out of the knots I tied myself into in the first phase, I work nine-to-five. I am quite hard to live with.

And for the last few weeks of the process, I tend to rise with the sun and write until I’m starving, come downstairs in a foul temper having a blood sugar crash, stuff my face with carbohydrates and then repeat the process in an afternoon session. At this stage living with me is borderline impossible, but what can I do?

I am a dazzling young actress. Please can I play Biba?

The rights to The Poison Tree have been sold to STV, but I’m not involved in any stage of the process and that includes casting. I’m sorry I can’t help you! But thank you for the photograph. You look very lovely in your swimsuit.

How do you combine family life with writing fiction?

Is it very ungracious of me that this question, always well-intentioned, never fails to raise my hackles? I wonder if, say, David Nicholls or Chris Cleave get that question as often as their female counterparts?

I cope getting up before the sun and learning to live with constant, corrosive guilt.* Not really, I cope the same way men have done for years; I have a wife. Well, a househusband, who keeps the home fires burning while I write. It wouldn’t suit everyone, but he’s highly evolved, and it works for us.

*Actually there are still a lot of early mornings and guilt. But I’m a pioneer, and every revolution sacrifices a generation.

Are your characters based on people you know?

It’s inevitable that certain traits and turns of phrase I encounter find their way into my books. The closer my relationship with someone, the less likely they are to find any aspect of themselves appearing in print. The more fleeting the encounter, the greater freedom I have to take what I know of that person and run with it.

I have never based a character entirely on someone I know, or someone I know of. I think it would be a greater challenge to try to recreate in fiction someone who exists in real life than it is to make up an imaginary person. It would also lay me wide open to litigation, and nobody wants that.

The only exception to this rule (that I’m aware of) is Guy from The Poison Tree, the public schoolboy who wants to be regarded as a dangerous renegade but who is soon unmasked as a deluded class tourist. The boy who inspired Guy was the first person my age I knew who had a mobile phone (this was in 1995, when the only people who had mobiles were bankers and drug dealers). He led us all to believe that his frequent, furtive phonecalls were a vital part of gangland life, but his cover was blown when his mum turned up at his house with his clean washing (pants ironed and folded) and a Tupperware container of scones.

Will you read my novel and tell me if it’s any good / introduce me to your agent / publisher?

I actually wish I could. I understand that desire for someone, anyone, to breathe life into your novel. But my life is bursting at the seams. I have two careers, one small family and a dwindling circle of neglected friends. I don’t have that many spare days – and trust me, to give any work in progress valuable, practical feedback rather than a slew of platitude takes days rather than hours.

Have you got a Kindle?

No (other e-readers are available). I associate screens with work, with output. When I’m reading for pleasure – and I do still read for pleasure - I want to turn and fold, not to click and scroll.

The first time I held a bound copy of a novel I had written was a moment of perfect pride and happiness. It was my trophy.

I love cover art. I love the sound of a turning page and I like to dog-ear pages and scribble in the margins and I like to write my name on the flyleaf. I like the way paper holds onto scent; my copy of A Suitable Boy still smells of coconut oil and still retains the odd grain of sand from the Keralan beach where I read it.

Above all I love bookshops, quirky little independent bookshops with their library steps and hush and anxious passionate staff and their fully-priced books that are the only honest remaining reflection the years of love and craft that are poured into every page.

I know that lots of you are in happy and deeply committed relationships with your e-readers, and am aware that my dogged adherence to paper flies in the face of environmental consideration, shelf space, convenience, cost and the increasingly stingy Ryanair cabin baggage allowance, but there you go.

Will you ever write a detective series?

I don’t think so. My brain just doesn’t seem to process stories from that procedural angle. What interests me is the people on the other side of the divide, the ordinary people who are out of their depth. When police do feature in my books it is very marginally. I also like the freedom to kill off anyone I fancy at any stage, and the freedom of starting again.

Will you ever write a sequel to The Poison Tree or The Sick Rose?

No. See above re: freedom and murder.

Which book do you wish you’d written?

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. It’s a jewel of a book, with a perfect little narrative, and beautifully designed. Many families go through several copies, which must go some way to compensating for those negligent parents who don’t buy books for their children. The merchandise alone could probably pay my mortgage for a year. Sadly, there is unlikely to be much demand for Rex-n-Biba party invitations or paper napkins in Waitrose any time soon.

What are Richard and Judy really like?

Exactly like they are on television, only somehow more so.


In Suburbia

It has been about three weeks since I ventured beyond my own postcode. The view from my study window is nothing but houses and golf courses as far as the eye can see. On days like this, the suburbs threaten to swallow me up and the menace of it feels as acute as any skulking figure in an urban alleyway.

One reviewer* described me as an ‘expert in the suburban macabre,’ which made me think about the British relationship with the suburbs and how that has influenced my work. Even when the setting is rural or urban, the complex British relationship with the margins of our cities has fascinated and inspired me. Karen in The Poison Tree is desperately ashamed of her solidly suburban background. It is her naive longing for a perceived bohemia that leads to the errors of judgement that drive the story. Paul, the male protagonist of The Sick Rose, feels both alienated and trapped by his (fictional) home town on the outer edges of the London sprawl.

The shame of coming from suburbia is a surprisingly rich seam to mine. But why? 84% of us live there, after all. And yet we remain pitched between two domestic idylls: a hip inner-city postcode with modernist interiors, or its rural equivalent, a country home festooned with Cath Kidston bunting and complete with Aga and boot room. There are magazines like Wallpaper and Elle Deco for the urbanites and Country Life for rural gentlefolk but no magazine for the metroland between the two states.

Suburbia has always been scorned by intelligentsia and the design conscious. Its sitcom streets and its school run politics are there to be mocked. It has traditionally been fashionable and intelligent to despise them – George Orwell called them ‘semi detached cells’. Great music and literature has emerged from the suburbs – almost all of it, from Hanif Kureshi to the Arctic Monkeys, is about escaping them. David Bowie, who spent his teenage years in Croydon, said, ‘It was my nemesis, I hated Croydon with a real vengeance. It represented everything I didn't want in my life, everything I wanted to get away from.’ He could have been speaking for Karen. For Paul. For me.

I grew up in Hornchurch, on the eastern wingtip of the District Line, ostensibly a London borough but culturally a world apart from the spirit of the capital. My father grew up in the East End, and I hated him for leaving. To my young mind there was more allure in my grandparents’ grotty Bow council block than in the whole of suburbia. East London fizzed with a gritty glamour all the more exciting because I didn’t yet understand it. My mother was raised  in West London, where her siblings still live, and it was always a treat for us to drive back through the city, climbing and descending from the Westway onto the Marylebone Road. One of my earliest memories is of gazing at Park Cresent, the sweeping Nash stucco just opposite Regent’s Park, with the Post Office Tower (as it was then) looming behind it and thinking, one day I’ll live there. By the time we got on to the A13, we were back in Essex where the houses formed endless screens of pebbledash and net, and I would stop looking out of the window.

When I was 22, I moved into a flat in Wimpole Street, W1, a skip away from Park Cresent. The rent was cheap, largely because the flat didn’t have a front door, central heating or a shower. There were ninety steep steps to the top floor. But there was always a house guest, always a party. The party scenes from The Poison Tree did not tax my imagination, and anyone who saw the inside of my Wimpole Street bedroom will recognise Karen's attic room in the Capel's house in Highgate. On flush weeks, we bought our groceries in Selfridges Food Hall. The afternoon I moved in, I remember leaning out of my garret window to see the back of Wigmore Hall, the iconic tip of the BBC HQ at Portland House and a very good-looking solicitor a few offices down stripping off his suit and putting on his cycling gear. I vowed never, ever to leave.

That was eleven years ago. Now home is a terraced house in Whetstone, a blip on the A1000 between Finchley and Barnet. It is neither fashionable nor central. A mile to the north, the London postcode runs out: two miles north and you lose your precious 020 area code, although to the 020 7 inner-London brigade, 020 8 is a fate worse than death anyway. I live here because my husband and I simply crept northwards on the map until we found an area we could afford to buy a house in. Like most suburbanites, we are here by default.

And do you know what? It’s actually... really all right. I’m married, mortgaged, a mother: it suits me to have three supermarkets, four playgrounds and two soft play centres within walking distance. Even if I had a bigger budget, I’d only move to a more fashionable suburb (yes, Hampstead does count as a suburb). My friends here – admittedly, other professional mothers, city refugees – say the same thing. The chances of my conflicted relationship with my suburban background slowly fermenting into a murderous rage are looking slim, and I am happy to leave that to the characters I create.

The trendy view of suburbia is starting to look lazy, clichéd even. In his cult book The Freedoms Of Suburbia, Paul Barker argues that the suburbs are more quirky and individual than the identi-lifestyles of the inner city or countryside. The estate agents have started to reframe suburban architecture: in many areas, 1930s semis with original fireplaces are now being marketed as period properties rather than potential developments.

The London suburbs have weathered the housing storm better than most. It’s the family homes have held their value better than the second homes or the first-time-buyer starter homes or the dockside lofts sold at the top of the market. The architecture of suburbia may be homogenised and uninspiring but the London suburbs can no longer be sneered at for their monoculturalism; healthy ethnic diversity is smoothed by middle-class values and property ownership, and we all rub along nicely. Kingston University’s Centre for Suburban Studies sums it up best, calling suburbia ‘a model for local living in a global society.’

The very accessibility of the suburbs is why they will never become a truly aspirational place to live: that’s why the urban and rural lifestyle myths are so pervasive, because most of us will never have them. To live well and easily on either of these poles takes serious money or serious compromise.

I’ve opted out of the urban dream and know that its opposite is not for me either. My family sampled the country idyll last year year, taking a house in Suffolk while a family of rats was ejected from our bathroom roof and the whole thing replaced (how fondly I look back on that episode). It was idyllic for precisely a fortnight, after which I yearned for the naff convenience of a Pizza Express that will serve two parents and a toddler with no booking at 4 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon.

I was born in the suburbs, had my fun in the city, but it is in returning to suburbia that I have finally grown up, and in suburbia that I will raise my daughter. I cheerfully expect her to hate me for it and disappear into the city as soon as she’s able. I bet she comes back, though.

These are some of my favourite novels that deal with suburbia - they range from the satirical to the gothic. It's a subject I am unlikely to tire of soon. Can anyone recommend any more?

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureshi (sine qua non)

26a by Donna Evans

Spies by Michael Frayn

The Bridesmaid by Ruth Rendell

Metroland by Julian Barnse

Diary of a Nobody by George & Weedon Grossmith

Now You See Me by Lesley Glaister

 

 

 

*It was Rosie Ifould in Psychologies, talking about The Sick Rose.


Welcome...

...to my newly revamped website. This is my first blog, somewhere for me to talk to you in more than 140 characters but less than 90,000 words.

I’m writing this in my London study, but this week exciting things are happening for me on the other side of the Atlantic. Today my first novel, The Poison Tree, is published in paperback in the US. It has a gorgeous new cover emblazoned with a great blurb from Stephen King, and what’s almost more exciting for a lifelong book fetishist like me, it has the iconic orange Penguin spine. I don’t usually keep my own books on the shelf in my sitting room but the temptation to slide a copy in my beloved ‘orange shelf’ was too much to resist. The Poison Tree currently resides between A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh and A Sense of Guilt by Andrea Newman. What a sandwich that is.

At the end of this week, The Dark Rose (published as The Sick Rose in the UK) makes its hardback debut. Early reviews have been good, and I’m hoping that the novel does well – I’m especially proud of this book. It would be all too easy to spend this week obsessively refreshing my Amazon page, but I have plenty to keep me away from the internet. I delivered my third novel – title to be revealed soon – to my editor on Christmas Eve. After a blissful January spent sitting on my arse eating cheese contemplating character and plot, I’m ready to return to my manuscript.

I’ll be updating this page soon with more news and reviews, giveaways. In the meantime, I hope this blog will become a two-way forum. If you have any questions about my novels, I would love to hear from you.